The off-season is inching closer by the day, with a number of teams facing some truly difficult decisions that could shape their rosters for years to come.
A number of those decisions involve Restricted Free Agents, those who are due large qualifying offers that they may not be worth, but would otherwise hit the open market if not, at least, presented with them.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at five RFAs whose futures are decidedly uncertain this summer.
5. Ethan Bear - Carolina Hurricanes
2021-22 Stat Line: 58 GP, 5 goals, 9 assists, 14 points, 16:05 TOI
You'd think teams would go crazy for a 24-year-old right-shot defenseman with encouraging underlying numbers and room to grow. But Ethan Bear hasn't quite been getting the love his profile should afford him, with reports suggesting that his future in Carolina may be murky, and that he may even want a change of scenery himself after the Hurricanes made him a healthy scratch for their playoff run.
Did Bear have a great 2021-22? No, he didn't. And he'd probably admit that himself.
Bear suited up in just 58 games this season, averaging the lowest ice-time total of his career thus far while displaying some hesitancy in the defensive end that landed him outside the Canes' top-six towards the end of the season. Injuries played a factor. But he could have been better.
Bear is a young player still trying to iron some things out. How many of those have we seen go on to accomplish great things?
That being said, keeping Bear would symbolize the Hurricanes taking a swing at a time when the organization really can't afford to miss.
The Canes have $19 million in cap space and 10 players set to hit free agency. Bear's qualifying offer is set at $2.4 million for next season. He's not worth that -- not at this time, at least -- which would mean that, if Bear accepts his QO, the Canes would therefore be paying him for future performance and possibly lowering their odds of re-signing Nino Niederreiter or Vincent Trochek, among others, in the process.
The two sides could always work out a more palatable deal on the side. But why would Bear not take the money and bet on himself to earn even more next summer?
4. Kasperi Kapanen - Pittsburgh Penguins
2021-22 Stat Line: 79 GP, 11 goals, 21 assists, 32 points, 14:32 TOI
Kasperi Kapanen is really fast. Really, really fast. And that's about it.
Honestly, Kapanen might be the most frustrating player in hockey. The talent is there. It always has been, with the former first-rounder showing glimpses of the scoring touch that made him a hot commodity back in 2020 while also evolving into a terrific penalty killer throughout his time in Toronto.
But Kapanen is also the king of bad habits, restricting his game into a predictable rhythm that opposing defenders figure out in one shift and neutralize until the final horn.
The 32 points Kapanen scored this season might seem decent on paper. But they're infuriating when compared to what he could produce if he just evolved his game even a little bit.
Back in the summer of 2020, rumblings about Kapanen's off-ice maturity issues as a Maple Leaf surfaced before they shipped him back to Pittsburgh. Three years later, those rumblings have begun to rumble again, with Penguins' management reportedly growing more and more tired of Kapanen as the season wore on which crescendoed into a few health scratches down the final stretch.
Contractually, though, Kapanen is in a weird position, one in which the signing bonus on his previous contract has lowered his qualifying offer to a mere $800,000.
He's not going to take that, of course, which then opens the possibility of Kapanen heading to arbitration to find a financial middle ground. And given his decent box score numbers recently and an extensive overall body of work, the Penguins may end up being forced to pay Kapanen a figure they really don't want to, which, then, could open up the possibility him being dealt to avoid this situation altogether.
3. Jesse Puljujarvi - Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 Stat Line: 65 GP, 14 goals, 22 assists, 36 points, 16:14 TOI
However much money Jesse Puljujarvi makes next season, he should get an additional 20 percent tacked on for all the undeserved garbage he's taken from Oilers media.
I do not understand what there is to not like about this kid.
Puljujarvi is a young, possession-driving, forechecking, puck-hungry, defensively responsible winger with positional versatility and some developmental runway left who, barring a massive deal, will be making a pittance on his next contract.
For the Oilers, who just got swept and out-classed in every way by an Avalanche team that actually covets its players instead of driving them away, he should be a slam-dunk part of the solution.
If he's not in Edmonton, he will be somewhere else.
Puljujarvi's qualifying offer is $1.41 million for next season. That is a bonafide steal for a player of his ilk, especially when compared to what someone like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who has less experience and is worse, makes. Frankly, it would be irresponsible for Puljujarvi to accept that figure. He's worth more, and could probably get it from another team if the Oilers choose to foolishly cut bait.
They might be forced to, though, as GM Ken Holland has just $7.13 million in cap space and 11 players set to hit free agency. And given the absolute smear job the Oilers media contingent and management group has put Puljujarvi through, his trade value is far from its peak, meaning that Holland would be selling a valuable player for pennies on the dollar.
What a mess. And it's of their own doing.
2. Patrik Laine - Columbus Blue Jackets
2021-22 Stat Line: 56 GP, 26 goals, 30 assists, 56 points, 18:50 TOI
At this point, we know what Patrik Laine is; one of the better goal scorers in the NHL whose individual peaks are among the highest of any offensive player, while his valleys render him largely useless.
Oh, and he doesn't play defense. Like, ever.
Still, Laine is a 24-year-old who has scored at nearly a 40-goal pace throughout his career, racked up a point-per-game on a bottom-tier team this season, and logged close to 19 minutes per night.
Surround him with some talent, and that's an extremely attractive player.
Is that player worth his $7.5 million qualifying offer? That remains to be seen.
Laine is at the point where he likely wants to sign a long-term deal, coming off one- and two-year extensions following his ELC. On the surface, the numbers are there. Laine's offensive production is what the Blue Jackets need, and the Blue Jackets' $22.8 million in cap space this summer give them the wiggle room to sign him.
The inconsistency, though, is what continues to be the sticking point.
Laine has shown just how good he can be when he's on. But he's also embarked upon multiple lengthy midseason stretches wherein he seems largely uninterested. Those will frighten any team, even the talent-hungry Blue Jackets, from committing to him for the long haul.
Sure, Laine might rip off 40 goals early on. But if he falls off a cliff or stops scoring at an elite rate for even a second, you're stuck with a pricey boat anchor who will likely hurt you in your own zone.
I can see Laine going for a two-year deal at either right on par with his QO, or a little higher. The Blue Jackets have a decent little group of young prospects in their system. Laine makes them even better.
1. Brock Boeser - Vancouver Canucks
2021-22 Stat Line: 71 GP, 23 goals, 23 assists, 46 points, 18:36 TOI
Back injuries might have robbed us of what Brock Boeser should have been.
The Canucks sniper has a reputation as a pure goal-scorer and has yet never reached the 30-goal plateau, taking something of a step back this season after rolling at nearly a point-per-game pace in the pandemic-shortened 2021 campaign.
Boeser is due a $7.5 million qualifying offer. He's not worth that, and the Canucks won't pay him it. What they might do is negotiate a long-term deal with a lower AAV, but even then, the Canucks' tight cap situation may make him the odd man out -- especially if they seriously want to re-sign J.T. Miller.
Paying Boeser that much money would be betting that he's more than the 20-to-25-goal guy he's been to this point in his prime. I don't know if that's a bet I would make.
Then again, I'm not a GM.